Photo by Greg Giannukos
Rob Baird’s Wrong Side of the River, out this past Friday, showcases a journey. For Baird, the journey is as much literal as figurative; the Texas artist took a shot at Music City, writing both for himself and for other artists, but just didn’t feel it clicking right. Baird returned to Austin, and Wrong Side of the River was born in the process, the vast expanse of Texas paired with the starting-gate fervor of a journey just embarked upon.
“Writing songs is so personal,” Baird says in explanation. “I’ll say something and I’ll be like, woah, I didn’t realize that was what I was really thinking or what was in my soul at the time. Nashville helped me realize how precious songwriting was for me to be writing for myself.”
From the pace-leading “Ain’t Nobody Got A Hold On Me” to the intimate “Horses,” personal songwriting is the calling card of the album, which is cohesive throughout. “Wrong Side of the River,” which begins with a minute-long intro before settling into sparse guitar tones, begins with a plan: “Gonna hitch me a ride in the dead of night and leave / You can keep your weekend gamblers and your goddamn delta heat / I don’t need your empty dreams and miles of angry streets / Like that hard earned money, I’m gone / Been on the wrong side of the river too long.” As the percussion builds and the mood comes creeping in, one can’t help but feel a Texas sun rising across flatlands before them, a simultaneous escape and homecoming.
“Run Of Good Luck,” one of the most powerful and breathtaking on the album, speaks similarly. Written by Baird with Ruston Kelly, the song features plaintive piano and full, echoing vocals. “I got no expectations, life just gets in the way,” sings Baird, who studied ranch management before devoting himself to music. “So why don’t we just roll the dice and head down the interstate.” The song so perfectly hits the sweet spot of fed-up desperation and the action taken to make a change. “We were born to be better than this worn out steel and leather,” Baird and his female vocal in the sidecar sing. “There was a time when all the lights of these streets couldn’t hold your dreams.” It’s wistful, moody, frustrated, contemplative, hopeful. Steel guitars slide past like sparse highway lights, gently guiding the journey.
For those settling into late night driving, “Horses,” a Mando Saenz and Sarah Siskind co-write and one of only three on the record that Baird didn’t have a hand in writing, is a natural next step. It’s one of the most intimate moments on the album, characterized by the same longing, despair, and hope that are ever present across the record. Tight writing meets with production that’s expansive and complementary, and makes lines like “stand when they’re sleeping and trust they won’t fall” all the more impressive. “Oh, when will I go flying? Oh, when will I let go?”
“I just remember I laid on the floor all day and listened to like a thousand songs,” Baird tells us. The demo for “Horses,” which was sung by Siskind in a different key, with different phrasing, was among them. It resonated with Baird immediately. “I just heard that and it rocked my world,” he says. “I knew it was special.”
From the more contemplative moments on Wrong Side of the River to the uptempos, Baird excels. “Mercy Me,” “Oklahoma,” and “Pocket Change” are marked by the same bluesy motivations, sometimes approaching a syncopated swagger. “Ain’t Nobody Got A Hold On Me,” which leads the record, perfectly introduces these, cowboy boots kicking up new dust and not bothering to watch where it lands. There’s an ease to the production, even on the larger tracks, as if it’s talking less to you than with you. Baird recorded the record “in this glorified garage,” affording him the luxuries of control and time – equally luxurious on the ears.
For late-night contemplation: “Run of Good Luck,” “Horses,” “When I Go”
In the midst of change: “Ain’t Nobody Got A Hold On Me,” “Wrong Side of the River”
For hope: “Mercy Me,” “Oklahoma”
Grab Wrong Side of the River on iTunes and preview below.